It’s been 95 days since Darby passed away. In some ways, it feels much longer than that and in other ways it seems like yesterday. I still expect to see her every Tuesday, smiling as she sings and dances with her friends. Every Monday in our creative writing class, I wonder what Darby would add to our story, remembering how much she loved to write and tell stories. Her name is still listed on our class rosters, her pictures are everywhere at Merrimack Hall and we have her name emblazoned on the wall in the dance studio…The Darby Jones Dance Studio. She is with us every day and yet she is gone…a 14-year-old girl whose life hadn’t even started…and she’s gone.
When we were preparing for her funeral, her mother, Valerie, wanted us to find a way to display Darby’s “Beads of Courage,” an impressive collection of beaded necklaces that the folks at Children’s Hospital in Birmingham helped her make. Each bead on the multiple necklaces Darby made represent a procedure…a spinal tap, a blood transfusion, a surgery, a chemo treatment. Literally hundreds of beads that stand for the hundreds of intrusive medical interventions she had to endure are strung together in at least 10 individual necklaces, each one long enough to wrap around Darby’s neck several times and still hang to her waist. She was proud of her Beads of Courage and loved explaining what each of the beads stood for, especially the beads with a picture of a face on them that have wiry curls sticking up…these beads were for the times Darby lost her hair during chemo. We covered heavy foam board with blue velvet fabric and used floral pins with pearls on the tops of them to hold the necklaces in place. At Darby’s visitation the night before her funeral, they were displayed beside her coffin on brass easels, uplit with small lights we brought from the theatre. After the visitation, we carefully loaded them into my car so that we could set them up at the funeral service.
As Sanders and I were preparing to leave my house for the funeral, we had to put a few more things into the back of my car and in the process, I broke one of the strands of beads. Beads rolled everywhere…all across the floor of my garage and into every nook and cranny of my car. We frantically chased them down, stuffing them into our pockets as we found them. We waited until we arrived at the church to assess the damage and were horrified to realize that we had lost one of the beads. We searched my car high and low but couldn’t find it anywhere.
While I worked with the florist to set up the sanctuary, Sanders drove to three different craft stores before she finally found the same string used for the necklaces so she could re-string them. Back at the church, I hid Sanders behind the large video screen we brought in and told her to restring that necklace as fast as she could before anyone else could realize I had broken it. I knew I would eventually tell Valerie that I had broken the necklace and lost a bead but I didn’t want her to know on the day of the funeral.
Sanders got the necklace restrung, working off of a photo we had taken at the visitation to get the order correct and no one was the wiser that day. A few days after the funeral, I was loading groceries in the back of my car and found the missing bead…in a place I had looked twenty times before. There it was, a simple red acrylic bead that stood for a blood transfusion. How could I have overlooked it when we tore my car apart trying to find it?
The day I found it, I had been feeling down and sad, replaying the funeral in my head. While the service was beautiful and comforting, it was as heartbreaking as you could imagine…there is something very wrong about a funeral for a child. I kept choking up that morning, remembering the tears that streamed down Anna C.’s face as Darby’s parents walked in the church behind the coffin. And then there it was – a little red bead – and I could feel Darby with me. I carry that bead in the change compartment of my wallet where I see it every day.
I will never understand why Darby had to leave us so soon. I believe that everything happens for a reason but for the life of me, I can’t imagine what reason there is for ending the life of a child. I’ve caught myself getting mad at God when I see a story in the news about some horrible criminal, thinking, “If God had to take someone on October 28, 2013, why couldn’t He have taken that wretched person instead of Darby,” as if God uses some sort of quota system to determine how many people should die each day. I’m sure it doesn’t work like that but it rankles me to think of all the people on this earth who are here doing evil things while Darby’s chance at a long life is gone.
When I told her about breaking the necklace, Valerie laughed at the image of Sanders and me scrambling all over my garage and car, hiding behind video screens to surreptitiously fixing the broken strand. I told her that I’d found the missing bead and offered it back to her but she wanted me to keep it. I’m grateful for that, I find comfort in knowing that bead is with me all the time. The bead used to represent a procedure that Darby endured but now, it represents her…her courage, her optimism, her beauty. Knowing Darby was one of the greatest blessings of my life and I wasn’t ready to lose her…neither were the hundreds of other people who loved her. I’m trying to live like she did – in the moment, with joy, with complete abandon – but I could have used a few more years of her influence to get it right.